“Idol worship isn’t good for anyone. Even the idols.” -John Bach
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a culture that has actual idols, but it can be a bit jarring at first. People actually bowing down or sacrificing to statues or inanimate objects just seems so…weird. But the really jarring part is when you come back to your own culture, because now that you had been introduced to idol worship, you can’t help but realize that you had already been doing it your entire life.
So this has been quite the bizarre week. If a fiction-writer would’ve written the headlines this week, we would have called it over the top. College athletes with imaginary girlfriends, Lance Armstrong finally confessed, and of course the newest Justin Bieber scandal.
Now just in case you’re not caught up on your latest latest teen-idol news, a couple of weeks ago the Paparazzi saw Justin Bieber smoking something, and they immediately knew that this was media gold. So they chased him…there was a wreck…and a member of the paparazzi died.
There’s a time in 1st Kings where Elijah confronts King Ahab for worshipping idols. Specifically, Ahab has started setting up temples to the Canaanite god Ba’al all over the country, he’s been killing the prophets of the LORD but couldn’t never find Elijah and that’s when Elijah strolls in with a challenge.
He tells ol’ Ahab that today we’re going to decide today once and for all who Israel should worship. And we’re going to do that with a showdown. Basically Elijiah sets up an Old Testament cage match. He’s the Don King of prophets.
And Ahab takes him up on the offer. After all, he’s got 450 prophets of Ba’al, and there’s just one Elijah.
So they set up this showdown on Mount Carmel, there’s two dead bulls laying on an altar and the challenge is the prophets of Ba’al will pray for Ba’al to send fire down, and Elijah will pray for the LORD to send fire down.
Now the whole story is brilliant…eventually the LORD sends fire down and the prophets of Ba’al are exposed as a sham and defeated. But what I want you to notice is how this showdown played out. The Ba’al prophets go first, they set up their bull and they starting banging their false god drum, and dancing around…and look at what Elijah tells them:
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping (or in the bathroom) and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.
I love that Elijah taunts them here! Imagine the courage it takes to be outnumbered by 449 people and to say something like this. But what I’m drawn to is the way they worshiped Ba’al. They cut themselves, as was their custom. In the ancient world people bled for their gods.
We still do.
So back to Justin Bieber. Whenever the word started getting out about Bieber’s new smoking habit, someone started a site about “Cutting for Bieber” and the idea was to get all of Justin Bieber’s fans to cut themselves and put pictures up the web to get him to stop smoking. It sounds crazy.
Thousands of pictures of teens cutting themselves started to roll in, along with comments begging Justin to change. On Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr…as was their custom.
Paul Tillich famously talks about how nobody is really an atheist. The question isn’t whether you worship or not…it’s what you choose to worship.
So this weekend I’m speaking at Winterfest, to lots of teens who are trying to figure out what it means to be a follower of Jesus in a world that has so many idols.. And after a week like this, I want to say to them, be careful of who you bleed for. Be careful of giving other things, even good things, the place reserved for God. I want to tell them about how easy it is to see idol worship in others, and how hard it is to see in the mirror. I want to tell them not to bleed for Bieber.
Because unless you are a teenage girl it’s probably pretty easy for you to see how crazy that is.
Thursday night Lance Armstrong finally confessed to the world what we had suspected for a long time. He had cheated to become one of the most successful athletes of all times. And when his world started to crumble he had ruined those around him just to save his own reputation. He worshipped his legacy. And we worshipped him.
A few months ago I was having lunch with a guy I’ve known for years. He was going through a hard time in his marriage. His wife had looked him in the eyes and told him he was being unfaithful, not because he was having an affair with a woman, she said he was unfaithful with his time. He had been worshipping work, and she was finished waiting on him to change. He had worshipped his vocation, and it was costing him his family.
There’s lots of ways to bleed for our gods.
It’s easy to read the story of Ba’al, or teens hurting themselves for an icon, and say that’s a mistake, but it’s something we are tempted to do every day. From famous athletes to heartbroken husbands.
And it’s just as empty and hopeless today as it was then. Or as Elijah would say…
Ba’al is in the bathroom.